Colourful, exuberant, fun-loving....1920 ushered in a decade of great optimism. It was a time when the rules were broken, new territories explored...when women broke free from many of the sartorial and social restrictions that had plagued their mothers and grandmothers. They wore looser, shorter clothes, cropped their hair and acquired a more assertive attitude. The Great War was over, women had the vote, technology was making life easier and it was the height of the Jazz age.
While in the US prohibition opened the door to illicit speakeasys, the forbidden fruit element only added to the excitement. The flapper had an image of racy rebellion....they were willing to experiment and break new ground.
They didn't call them the roaring twenties for nothing.
Little did those happly flappers know that just around the corner a devasting Depression awaited. The biggest economic crisis of the 20th century was to dampen the spirits of the 20s generation in a big way... but in the meantime ihe girls and boys just wanted to have fun, fun, fun! At least that is the image that comes to us across the decades. No doubt living conditions were still tough for some.
Bobs had been worn to a lesser degree by the ultra-trendy since WWI but in the 1920s the style became popular with the general public through iconic film stars such as Loiuse Brooks. This departure from the long dresses/long hair style of previous generations was seen as rather shocking and a brazen statement of female independance. The bob style of the 20s developed an artistic edge, featuring interesting geometric shapes and sharp lines that added drama to the face. It's a style that became a modern classic and is still worn today in a variety of manifestions.
Originally known as the 'undulation Marcel' this wavy bob hairstyle became highly popularised in the 20s and was named after 19th century hairdresser Francois Marcel, inventor of the process. Although this style too had been employed pre-20s using hot irons heated on a stove, by 1924 the invention of electric waving irons had made the job easier and now the waves were combined with the newly fashionable short bob.
The Eton Crop
Not as popular as the bob, possibly because it was not overly flattering to those with less than perfect features, was the very short Eton Crop. which exposed the ears and could be worn with or without Betty Boop-like kiss curls. The style tended to be worn by the daring.
1920's Hair for Men
Predictably, the men's hair styles were far less adventurous than the womens. It was popular for men of the period to wear their hair short on the back and sides and longer on the top and the longer locks were often slicked back with hair oil for a more sophisticated look.
The French cloche, found in a variety of forms, is the hat most associated with the 1920's, although there was a variety of hat styles around. The distinctive bell shape gave the wearer an alluring look of intrigue and it was worn low on the head, just shading the eyes. It also tended to make the wearer look taller, since it often incorporated a rather bulbous high top.
Art Deco was highly fashionable at the time and some of the characteristic design elements were incorporated into hat design, with the use of bold lines, deco appliques and Aztec zig zag seaming in greens, pinks, creams and blacks.
Milliners of the 20's were also imaginatively inspired by exotic locations and vampish fantasies and these creative hat makers sought out stylistic inspiration from the Far East...Egypt, China, Japan and Russia. Headdresses include tiaras, turbans, silk headbands, toques, kokoshniks and scarves elaborately knotted at one side.
Hats were an essential item for men, wherever one stood on the socio-economic scale. A man (or woman for that matter) without a hat in public was viewed as very infra dig. Styles included trilbies, bowlers, fedoras, boaters and caps , depending on the occasion..
Up until the liberating 20's, swimwear was generally made from heavy woollen cloth that was lumpy, impractical and not terribly appealing, although I guess it was relatively sun smart.
As the decade wore on the swimwear shrank and more body parts were publically revealed than ever before. Some were shocked and appalled by the degeneracy...but those who dared, revelled in the newfound freedom to swim and cavort with greater ease.
The tank style all-in-one bathing suit was known as the maillot and is the basis for modern one-piece swimwear.
Make-up use increased markedly in the 20's, helped along by the dramatic looks of silent film stars. There was little attempt to hide the artifice, and indeed, it was socially desirable to flash your compact in public...ostentatiously powdering your nose and applying lipstick while you were seated at the table in a nightclub or restaurant supposedly conjured an aura of glamour and sophistication.
At the beginning of the decade pale powder was popularly used but this was later replaced with a more natural hue. Rouge was prevalent too, in deep pink colours and around the middle of the decade orange came into vogue.
Drama was the order of the day and lipstick shades were 'poisonous' deep reds, plums, brownish reds and orange. Lip width was de-emphasised and a pert Cupids-bow was desirable.
Eyes were dark and smoldering with eyeliner edging the whole eye and smudged into a softer look. Grey, green and turqoise were popular eye-shadow colours and lashes were often blackened with mascara that came in a wax cake, melted and applied in a gluggy mass with a stick.
Nail polish was also popular but the half-moon cuticle and tip were..oddly, left bare.
Breasts Were Out!
20s women's clothes were distinct for their abandonment of female curves . Corsets were tossed on the scrapheap. Gone was the classic emphasis on breasts and hips, in favour of an elegant but more boyish style. In France the style of the flappers was referred to as "garconne", meaning "little boy".
Hemlines rose as the decade wore on and by the late 20s the skirts hung just below the knee. For one thing women needed freedom to move for all those whacky dance crazes, The simpler style also meant the dresses were easier to make and lent themselves to decoration, with beading, tassles and embroidery.
Like the dresses, coats got progressively shorter but the wraparound style remained popular throughout the era and often incorporated a large roll fur collar and sometimes fur cuffs.
Fashion does not exist until it goes out onto the streets.
French designer Coco Chanel was hugely influential on 20s style and she broke new ground in fashion; departing from heavy fabrics and cumbersome, complex designs to in introduce comfort, lightness and ease of wear in female fashion.
The flapper ideal was a slim, straight figure and bigger busted women took to bandaging their chests or purchasing a symington side lacer, a kind of bodice with laces at the sides to squeeze those breasts into oblivion. With the new penchant for slimness and bare arms and legs it was difficult to face life as a flabby flapper so a trend for exercise and "health clubs" sprang up.
The shoes were wonderfully elegant and quirky at he same time. ..and post WWI mass production meant the new styles were more affordable. They were often strappy and featured buckles, bows, buttons, sequins or diamentes and usually had two inch heels. The Mary Jane ankle strap and T-bar were popular designs. Now that shoes were no longer partially obscured by long dresses they became even more important as a fashion statement.
While black wool stockings were universally the go until the end of WWI, in the 20s beige became the new black and fleshier coloured stockings showed off bare calves. After 1923, rather than wool, stockings were made out of the much lighter rayon and rolled over a garter.
Beads were popular, worn in strings, as were multitudes of jangly bangles and elaborate earrings. The Art Deco influence was ubiquitous and marvellous deco style jewellry was fashioned out of celluloid, glass, jet, jade, bakelite, platinum, silver and gold. The discovery of King Tut's Tomb in 1922 was a big event and started a craze for Egyption style jewellry....it seemed everyone wanted to be Queen of the Nile.
The fashionable flapper with her short, boyish clothes, heavily made-up face and pert attitude had a scandalous image...she smoked, she drank, she danced...she partied hard. She also not only rode in cars, but insisted on driving them as well. Ford's model T had made cars accessible to the mainstream and by 1924, affordibility had made it the most popular car in the world.
~By the mid 1920s the typical American town was in full sexual bloom. The change came with erotic fashions, literature and movies and an unsuspected sexual aid, the automobile.~
The 1920s was not all beer and skittles. Described by historians as a period of 'cultural conflict' it was also a time when the Ku KLux Klan was prominent, rural poverty was a serious problem, the Scopes monkey trial was occuring, crime syndicates were rife [driven by prohibiition) and new restrictions on immigration laws emerged.
However with the simultaneous rise of technology and consumerism it was the beginning of the modern era we love/hate today.
While Paris was the epicentre for women's fashion, London tended to set the trends for men's clothes and as the decade wore on the traditional 'saque' suits which had been around since the 1800's gradually gave way to tweeds, grey flannels, fairisle vests, knickerbockers (popularised by golfers), high-waisted Oxford bags, raccoon and camel hair coats and, If you were a Jazz dandy, there was a brief period when tightly fitting suits with stovepipe pants were fashionable. Two-tone shoes were also the rage.
Interestingly, Oxford bags originated, not surprisingly, at Oxford University, as a solution to the ban on knickerbockers...students used to cover their illicit knickers with baggy trousers...but they caught on as a fashion statement in their own right.
Other significant innovations of the period included the front crease in men's trousers, cuffs added to trousers and belts to hold the whole thing up, instead of suspenders. Colours too were lighter and brighter. Suits became simplified and in contrast to previous decades, it no longer became necessary for men to change outfits several times a day in accordance with social expectation...the more accesible 20's fashion was also a great leveller between the classes.
For evening wear a top hat and tails worn with black patent leather shoes was standard but the previously popular long tail was now considered stodgy and lost ground to the short tail evening suits.
Music and Dance
~Flappers trot like foxes, limp like lame ducks, one-step like cripples, and all to the barbaric yawp of strange instruments which transform the whole scene into a moving-picture of a fancy ball in bedlam.~
Altlantic Monthly, 1920
The Roaring Twenties were also known as the Jazz Age.....and it's music dominated the scene. After WWI, thousands of African Americans moved North in search of brighter opportunities, bringing their vitality and culture with them. Blues, Dixieland and especially Jazz took America and other parts of the world by storm.
The most popular dance of the 20s, The Charleston had originated in Southern Carolina...other dance crazes included The Black Bottom, The Turkey Trot, The Cakewalk and The Bunny Hug. Dances became hugely popular and the questionable dance marathon was born.
Great performers of the era included such names as King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, George Gershwin and Louis Armstrong.
For a dose of positive energy I highly recommend the following video. Love it.
The next decade on...
- Fashion History - Ladies' Fashion Designs of the 1930's With Pictures
Here are the historic fashion design trends of 1932. The pictures of these vintage dress styles may not have been haute couture but were offered up for the readers of the Ladies Home Journal in May of 1932....
Dave K on February 01, 2020:
The flappers seemed to be the main attraction. Men just lurked in the
background, and paid the bills!
Jane Bovary (author) from The Fatal Shore on November 12, 2010:
Hey Moxyl...I love them too. Thanks for reading.
Moxy Lewis from London on November 12, 2010:
I love the bob hair and hats! Fabulous and beautiful hub!
Jane Bovary (author) from The Fatal Shore on October 27, 2010:
Thanks Dolores..of course I don't mind! I've done the same with yours.
That's very interesting about the hemlines...lol. I guess people are more daring when times are good.
Dolores Monet from East Coast, United States on October 27, 2010:
I love this one! The Roaring 20's were such an interesting time and the clothing was fabulous. I love the look and the music. Hope you don't mind me linking to this for my hub on 30's clothes. It's so much fun to look at period dress. (I just read where hemlines go up in times of plenty, down in a bad economy.)
Jane Bovary (author) from The Fatal Shore on September 12, 2010:
William,lovely to see you and I agree the 20's were an incredibly vibrant time...you can see the energy and excitement in that video clip. What a pity it all had to end!
William F Torpey from South Valley Stream, N.Y. on September 11, 2010:
Wonderful and thorough history of the greatest era ever, Jane Bovary. It was a little before my time, but it was a time I wish I had lived. The music, the birth of motion pictures, the style, and the whole way of like was like no other period in history. Although straddled between two World Wars and capped by the Great Depression there was incredible camaraderie and high social spirits unlike any other time, including today. A tip of my hat to you!
Jane Bovary (author) from The Fatal Shore on September 08, 2010:
Well I don't think I could keep a straight face..lol.
Rod Marsden from Wollongong, NSW, Australia on September 07, 2010:
I didn't get to see the Art deco exhibition you refer to but I have been to New York and I have seen the Chrysler Building from the top of the Empire State building.
Yes. the banana dance was really something. Sexy. Josephine Baker was also a singer. She sang in both French and English. Mick Jagger was an admirer of her singing. I believe he went to her final concert. He was a tearaway in his own era and I think he recognized a kindred spirit in her.
Yes the Creation Museum would be something to see provided you can keep a straight face. Noah's Ark with T-Rex's and so forth. Gotta love the absurdity of it all.
Jane Bovary (author) from The Fatal Shore on September 06, 2010:
Rod as usual you leave a fantastic comment. I love both the Empire State building and the Chrysler building..and yes, there is something about Art Deco that's just so appealing. Did you catch the Deco exhibition in Australia that was around a couple of years ago..? I'm not sure if it went to Sydney or not but it had some fantastic pieces.
F.Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda were certainly prominent figures of the era and I guess The Great Gatsby would just about have to be the definitive 20's novel. I loved that book. I've never read any Lovecraft.
You're right about the goth/vamp connection...those dark eyes and lips and the pale flesh. When I think vamp, I think of Theda Bara sprawled over a chaise lounge. German s&m vamps...? The 20's were so decadent..lol.. ..especially in Berlin. It's amazing when you think how morally uptight censorship got later on...everything closed up and we got the twin beds in films. The fact that you couldn't show a double bed in a film during one particular period would have to be one of the most ludicrous acts of censorship ever. Oh and Josephine Baker was sensational...that banana dance! They had a clip of that at the Deco exhibition.
And yes, you only have to take a look at the Creation Museum in Kentucky where vistors can marvel at displays of dinosaurs and humans side by side, to see that the issues of the Scopes trial...incredibly, are still active.
Jane Bovary (author) from The Fatal Shore on September 06, 2010:
Hi De Greek...yes that would be a treat! I love the style but of course there are things the 20's just didn't provide. Computers for one!
De Greek from UK on September 06, 2010:
It would be so nice to somehow be able to go back for just a stroll on a main street ... :-))
Rod Marsden from Wollongong, NSW, Australia on September 06, 2010:
Great hub Jane.
Women in Australia had the vote when it came to federal elections in 1902, a year after federation. You just had to be of European descent, generally meaning of English descent. We were way ahead of other Western style nations in this respect though it took a long time before Aborigines both men and women could vote.
I love art deco. To me the best of it had a science fiction feel to it like the Empire State Building which was a 1930s masterpiece but still art deco. If any building should be able to blast off into the sky its the Empire State Building. The Chrysler building was also nice art deco that looked rocket like.
Women like Clara bow did look great.
Yes. Not everyone was as free as they should have been with the vote in the USA. The KKK was there in the south to stop African Americans from voting and education in the south wasn't the same for African Americans as it was for white people.
Of the flappers the most famous would be F. Scot Fitzgerald's wife, Zelda. It was the Jazz Age and there were African Americans in Paris dancing and playing.
Maybe the wildest flapper of them all was Josephine Baker. It would be hard to top her banana dance. later on she became a great singer.
Yes. interest in Egypt and things Egyptian did get a shot in the arm and there was a mix of art deco with Egyptian motifs in jewelry.
H. P. Lovecraft, horror writer, did some of his best work in the 1920s.
Louis Armstrong was great. I love Its a Wonderful World. You might know the song from the movie Good Morning Vietnam.
The 1920s was also the age of the Vamps. These were young women who smoked and drank and wore black. I always thought they looked rather stylish. They were something like present day Goths. There were a couple of German silent movies with Vamps in them including one with a vamp with a whip.
Yes. The Scopes monkey trial. Definitely worth a mention. A Law in support of Genesis and aimed against the Theory of Evolution. The most famous trial of the day involving a school teacher who thought there was nothing wrong in teaching evolution. Today you still have people in the American south forced to defend evolution against attacks from bible-bashers.
Jane Bovary (author) from The Fatal Shore on September 05, 2010:
Lol...read the hub!
epigramman on September 05, 2010:
what's a cloche????
Jane Bovary (author) from The Fatal Shore on September 05, 2010:
Micky...It's hard to keep your feet still when you watch that dancing video! Thanks for cycling by!
drbj,yes, it was really an amazing period,particularly for women ...the madcap release from WWI. Thanks very much for the comment.
Epi thanks to you too. I think I was born in the wrong decade...but I'm not sure about your maths...haha. If you were born in 1920 I'll eat my cloche!
drbj and sherry from south Florida on September 05, 2010:
I agree with epi, Jane, this memoir of the 20s is so attractive and compelling, I didn't want it to end. Read every single word. This is was the world that my mother and father would often talk about when reminiscing. Thanks for the deja vu.
epigramman on September 05, 2010:
..best hub of all time on 1920. I can't say I remember it but it was the year I was born. My guess is with numerology as my aid - 19 + 20 = 39 - you must be 39 years old/young - you certainly look a lot younger - and if you keep putting together hall of fame hubs like this you will be keeping me younger too!
Micky Dee on September 05, 2010:
I look just like this Ramon Navarro fellow. That's without my beard of course. Great hub, pictures, and I loved the dancing and music of the video!